Thursday, March 02, 2017

Remembering Larry Johnson

DC Blues Society Black History Month program. David Jackson second from left, M. Lavert in white shirt in the back, Larry Johnson sitting down, David Harris on harmonica, not sure of bass or guitarist all the way to left and Miss Tina? on red dress. Not sure of the exact date but this is likely from February 1998. — with Ed Scott, David Jackson, Melvin LaVert and David Harris at Baird Auditorium, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

It wasn't until about half year after his passing in a Harlem, NY nursing home, that word got out that the great acoustic bluesman, Larry Johnson had passed away in the Summer of 2016. A few days ago word was that the date of passing was August 6 when he was 78. Johnson, was born May 15, 1938 in Wrightsville, Johnson County, Georgia. 

The son of a traveling preacher, Johnson was inspired by the recordings of Blind Boy Fuller and learned to play a rudimentary guitar. After serving in the Navy between 1955 and 1959, he relocated to New York City. Upon arriving in New York he started performing in the blues scene recording for legendary Harlem record man Bobby Robinson, and then with Big Joe Williams and Alex Seward, primarily playing harmonica for Prestige-Bluesville. Through Seward he met Rev. Gary Davis who mentored Johnson and became the dominant influence on his guitar playing and music. 

Davis recorded an album with Hank Atkins for Bluesville and also played with Davis as well as appeared on some recordings of Davis. After recording on harmonica with New York City electric bluesman Charles Walker, Johnson recorded in 1970 for the Yazoo subsidiary label, "Fast and Funky," which displayed his warmth as a vocalist and his superb fingerstyle guitar in the manner of Reverend Davis. His renditions of blues like "Pick Poor Robin Clean" and "Keep It Clean" and originals like "Charley Stone" and "The Beat From Rampart Street," made this one of the finest acoustic blues recordings of the past 50 years. The Baltimore Bljues Society issued this on CD in 1997 in a limited edition.  

A couple years later, he recorded "Country Blues," with John Hammond adding harmonica and steel guitar, for Biograph that was reissued in 1995 as "Midnight Hour Blues." In the February 1996 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 208) I wrote "Still active in New York today, Larry Johnson’s musical star shined brightly in the sixties and early seventies. As these magnificent 1971 recordings display, it is criminal that such a talent should have languished in obscurity while far less talented artists are acclaimed as acoustic blues legends. A student of the Reverend Gary Davis, Johnson displays plenty of the facile Piedmont style on this release while John Hammond’s accompaniments on slide guitar or harmonica compliment the spirit of Johnson’s vocals, whether on the spirited opening Blood Red River, or Johnson’s morose rendition of Mercy Dee’s One Room Country Shack. And to listen to Johnson sing is as much a pleasure as the simply scrumptious instrumental work over a range of blues standards, including Midnight Hour Blues, Nobody’s Biz-Ness and When Things Go Wrong. Hammond joins Johnson on a vocal on the closing Tell Me Mama. While Hammond is basically known as an interpreter of Mississippi blues, his stunning accompaniments here are noteworthy, as is Johnson’s own sterling playing and wonderful vocals. Simply a terrific reissue that is welcome back on the scene."
Larry Johnson at 1998 Baltimore Blues Society show

For the next couple decades he recorded a bit, including for Spivey Records on his own and as an accompanist, a couple albums with harmonica player Nat Riddles as well as performances in Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival as well as the National Downhome Blues Festival in Atlanta. In 1990 he recorded an album "Railroad Man" for JSP Records and the previously mentioned "Midnight Hour Blues" was reissued in 1995. 

It was during a blizzard in winter of 1996 (I believe) that Marcia Selko, President of the Baltimore Blues Society and her husband Brad came across Larry playing at Terra Blues. There excitement of seeing him perform led to them handling some booking for Larry including performances for the Baltimore and DC Blues Society, and appearances at Festivals including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Pocono Blues Festival as well as the reissue of "Fast and Funky." It also led to Larry appearing again in Europe where he recorded for Armadillo and Stella Records. He also appeared at various Blues Week workshops in England and the United States as well as performing in Europe and New York City, until health issues curtailed his music.

I only got to meet Larry a few times but found him a wonderful gentleman and marvelous blues artist. He was arguably the finest of Rev. Davis' students and the recorded legacy he leaves us is a significant one. Here is Larry doing Midnight Hour Blues. (photos on this page are mine).

For a full discography of Larry Johnson's recordings, visit


rocket9 said...

Thank you..saw Larry at the Poconos and he held a sizable crowd spellbound for over an hour. In a tent. In the rain. Somehow that made the experience more intimate for everyone. One of the great memories from my blues travels over the years. He was a special talent and seemed like a very intelligent and thoughtful human being. Sorry to hear that he has left the planet. But he's part of the stars now.

Hank Brandes said...

Thank you for remembering Larry. I learned about his passing today, March 14, 2017. I was profoundly sad to hear that he passed on. I played drums with Larry for 2 years in the early 1980s when Larry decided to get back in the game. Prior to my playing with him, I used to go to see him in the 70s at all of legendary clubs in New York such as, Maxwell's Kansas City, Kanny's Castaways (when they were on E. 83rd Street and before the club moved to the West Village). Sometimes Larry and "Fess" (the Professor) were the opening act for artists like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, or as a headliner. He was always impressive and he always had command of the audience. Larry had fallen on rough times and dropped out of the music scene for a number of years. When he decided to make a comeback he asked me to play drums with him. We started out playing several gigs at Dan Lynch's with Horace Evans on bass. Larry decided he wanted to change bass players and asked if I had any suggestions, and I recommended Bob Guida who I had been playing with in band in the early 80s. The trio began to gig regularly at clubs, such as Kenny's Castaways and, more frequently at the Other End (the other side of the famed Bitter End-both owned by Paul Colby). Pat Kenny, owner of Kenny's Castaways, was Larry's biggest fan and he booked us quite a bit. Eventually, Bob Guida dropped out and once again Larry and I discussed who to replace him with, and he chose the great blues harmonica player Nat Riddles. Nat added a new dimension to the music that I could not have imagined. His innovative, syncopated, inventive style pushed the band into the stratosphere and we were always well received by the crowd. After a long stint together, eventually Larry decided he wanted to stop. Tragically, we lost Nat too early. Years later, I surprised Larry in the mid-1990s when he was playing with a full electric band at the Whitney Museum on 42nd Street. When he saw me he grabbed me and gave me a big hug and I think both of us were tearing up from the reunion. That was probably the last time I saw him, although I followed his career and kept up with his whereabouts. I loved him dearly and he was a very sweet man to me and my wife and I am going to miss him terribly.